So Who Influenced the President's Ozone Decision?

September 9, 2011
Michael Halpern
Former contributor

On my previous post on ozone, reader Jeff asked:

1) What is the current standard for ground ozone?

2) Which businesses, specifically, are trying – I mean succeeding – in blocking the new standards?

Jeff, I felt that the answers to your questions were complex enough to warrant another post (and probably even a book!). Here they are in brief.

The Current Ozone Standard

The current ground-level ozone standard is 84 parts per billion (ppb), which was set in 1997.* Or, the current ground-level ozone standard is 75 ppb, which was set in 2008. Sound confusing? It is. In essence, the 2008 standard was considered final, but the EPA has maintained that:

(b) The 1997 standard—and the implementation rules for that standard—will remain in place for implementation purposes as EPA undertakes rulemaking to address the transition from the 1997 ozone standard to the 2008 ozone standard.

(c) EPA is in the process of reconsidering these standards (set in March 2008).

In other words, the implementation of the 2008 standard was postponed after the Obama administration decided to revisit it. The American Lung Association has demanded at a minimum that the EPA enforce the flawed 75ppm standard that the Bush administration put forward, because even that was an improvement.

Air pollution statistics cartoon

This cartoon is featured in the 2011 UCS cartoon calendar.

It’s important to note that the science on ozone has progressed considerably since 1997. The EPA’s independent Clean Air Science Advisory Committee—made up of seven of the country’s most knowledgeable air pollution experts—and EPA staff scientists reviewed more than 1700 studies and in 2007 determined that a standard between 60 and 70 would provide sufficient public health protection.

Even the Bush administration recognized that the 84 ppb standard was too high, and set the final standard at 75 ppb. This was challenged by public health advocates, however, because the Clean Air Act did not allow the Bush administration to set the standard at a level that was inconsistent with the science. The 75 ppb standard was suspended by the Obama administration, which claimed to want to revisit the flawed standard to bring it in line with the science, which the public health advocates took in good faith.

One of the arguments the White House made for postponing a decision was that a new scientific review was underway that might yield different results. But in fact, ground-level ozone since the 2007 assessment has shown even bigger health consequences of high levels of exposure, meaning that it is highly likely that for the next assessment, scientists will recommend an even stronger standard. So there’s no justification for inaction.

So Which Businesses Influenced the President’s Decision?

It’s a little difficult to figure out which specific companies are behind all of the pressure on the White House, mainly because their trade associations do all of the dirty work. For example, on July 15, 2011, representatives from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, National Association of Manufacturers, Business Roundtable and other industry groups met with senior EPA leadership to discuss their opposition to strengthening the standard.

Concurrently, they were taking their case directly to the White House, appealing all the way up to White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley to stop the EPA from doing its job.

The Importance of Visitor Logs

Ironically, and to the administration’s credit, one of the reasons we know about meetings like these is that the White House is releasing its visitor logs, and the EPA makes the calendars of its top leadership available to the public. That allows reporters, watchdog groups, and concerned citizens to better investigate who is influencing decisions that are supposed to be made on science.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with stakeholders meeting with White House and federal agency officials. In fact, UCS and other public interest organizations do it all the time, on ozone and scores of other public health and environmental issues. But the public can hold its government more accountable when we know who’s at the table.

We think that the practice of releasing visitor logs should be extended throughout the government, because as this case illustrates, lobbyist influence is too strong. We have asked federal agencies to follow the lead of the White House and commit to releasing their visitor logs as they develop agency-specific scientific integrity policies.

And certainly, with the increased ability of corporations to spend money on elections, and with business groups stating openly that an ozone decision based on science would hurt the president’s reelection chances, pressure on the president to undermine the Clean Air Act again will only increase. Especially when even Stephen Colbert can create a Super PAC to support or oppose candidates for public office with little accountability.


*To make it even more confusing: The 1997 standard is actually 0.08 parts per million because the technology was not advanced enough to measure to the individual part per billion. Now, we have that capability, but for the purposes of compliance with the standard, a measurement of 84 ppb is rounded down to 80 ppb, making 84 ppb the effective upper limit.